The New-Old Authoritarianism

With US think tanks having already drawn up plans for instituting an authoritarian government under a second Donald Trump administration, the stakes in the year’s presidential election are difficult to overstate. Around the world, “strongmen” are turning democratic institutions on themselves and learning from each other.

From Project Syndicate: Over the past decade, Ruth Ben-Ghiat has emerged as one of the English-speaking world’s leading experts on, and chroniclers of, authoritarian leaders in the twenty-first century. A professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, she warns against complacency in the face of growing threats to democracy around the world.

Project Syndicate: What is your working definition of a twenty-first-century “strongman”? Or more specifically, which contemporary political leaders do you include in this category, and what features do they share?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I use the term strongman for authoritarian leaders who damage or destroy democracy using a combination of corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo (masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy). A strongman’s personality cult elevates him as both a “man of the people” and “a man above all other men.” Authoritarianism is about reorganizing government to remove constraints on the leader – which in turn allows him to commit crimes with impunity – and machismo is essential to personality cults that present the head of state as omnipotent and infallible.

Strongmen, as I define them, also exercise a form of governance known as “personalist rule.” Government institutions are organized around the self-preservation of a leader whose private interests prevail over national interests in both domestic and foreign policy; public office thus becomes a vehicle for private enrichment (of the leader and his family and cronies).

Personalist rule is associated with autocracies. A good example is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where a kleptocratic economy allows for the systematic plundering of private and public entities for the financial benefit of the leader and his circle. Yet personalist rule can also emerge in degraded democracies when a politician manages to exert total control over his party, develop a personality cult, and exert outsize influence over mass media. That happened in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi (who owned the country’s private television networks and much more) and in America during Donald Trump (through his command of Twitter and his alliance with Fox News).

Because personalist leaders are always corrupt, they and those closest to them usually will be investigated when they come to power in a democracy. In such cases, governance increasingly revolves around their defense. More party and civil-service resources will be devoted to exonerating the leader and punishing those who can harm him, such as judges, prosecutors, opposition politicians, and journalists…

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